December Research Spotlight on Ana Maria Barral, Ph.D.

Tell us about your current career position. Ana Maria Barral
I am an assistant professor at the department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, National University, California. My university is a primarily teaching institution, although faculty has a requirement and support for research also. My research explores the microbes attaching to plastic in coastal waters, and I am also involved in teaching research, particularly how to incorporate research in undergraduate education and flipped learning. 

What are the key experiences and decisions that have enabled you to reach your current position?   
Mine was a conventional academic research scientist path, but during grad school I was involved in a lot of teaching and training. As a postdoc, I realized I missed the interactions with students and the challenges and joys of teaching, and decided not to pursue being a traditional academic. I spent a few years working at a biotech company and teaching as an adjunct at different colleges, while learning more about the science of teaching. Gaining expertise in innovative teaching approaches helped me tremendously to land my current position. 

How did you first become interested in science? 
My parents were both medical doctors, and my mother did physiology research, so science was always present in my life since childhood. I read many books detailing the lives and discoveries of scientists and dreamed about becoming one. However, I knew I did not want to be a physician, and biology did not attract me as I thought it was all about animals and plants. Chemistry was interesting but it felt a bit dry. Everything changed when I learned about biochemistry, I remember how excited I was about a chemistry that looked at living organisms! 

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track? 
Many times! The gamut runs from saying no to opportunities that felt too scary to being overeager with interesting results without double-checking everything. How to regroup? Well, one has to accept not being perfect and that it is ok to make mistakes, and be kind to oneself. It is human to err. Then, just pick up the pieces and keep going. It will all pass. Learn from the experience. Personally, I like to have more than one project going (both in science as in personal life), so setbacks in one can be balanced with successes in others.

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours? 
Be brave. Be bold. Network as much as you can, and look for mentors. Never say no to an opportunity, because you don’t know when is the next one. Be who you are. Be authentic.

What are your hobbies? 
I love traveling, particularly going off-roading to remote places. Running. Photography. Backyard work. Paddle boarding and the ocean in general. Reading. Music.

What was the last book you read? 
Assuming this is about non-science books, I am currently reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the latest finished was The Fiery Cross. She has a science background and I enjoy reading her biology commentaries through the books. Just discovered Nnedi Okorafor (great science fiction), and got started Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B. Science wise, I am slowly winding my way through Patton’s book on Qualitative Research. It is eye-opening and giving me a lot of exciting ideas for assessing teaching innovations.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you. 
There are many people I admire for what they have done and achieved in life. But my role models are those who live their life to the fullest, in accordance to their principles, are very accomplished, and still humble and kind. I know a few people like that, and I aspire to be like them. 

What is it that keeps you working hard every day? 
I am very lucky that I love what I do. As a laboratory scientist, my impact on the world was minuscule, while as an educator, I feel I can influence others’ lives in a positive way. My students tend to be older, so I also learn a lot from them. Even better, I have my research projects, in which I can involve students. One of my greatest joys is to see students who did not think about becoming scientists to do and enjoy science!